Voices of Mississippi: An Interview with William (Bill) Ferris

Voices of Mississippi: An Interview with William (Bill) Ferris

Article by  Jeffrey Wolf 

Bill Ferris is a longtime friend and associate, and also an Advisor on my latest film Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts. We met up recently in Washington, D.C., prior to the Smithsonian American Art Museum symposium on Bill Traylor. I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his new Grammy-award-winning boxed set, Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris, which received Grammy awards in two categories: Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes.

In addition to this remarkable archival achievement, Bill Ferris has mentored a great many in the field, and with his boundless enthusiasm, has inspired and motivated us in our work.

Voices of Mississippi’s case itself is a jewel of design and a joy to handle and explore. The contents include a hardcover book edited by William Ferris that includes essays by Scott Barretta, David Evans, and Tom Rankin. There are two CDs of Blues and Gospel recordings (1966-1978), featuring songs by James “Son Ford” Thomas, Lovey Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Walter Lee Hood and Parchman Inmates, and The Southland Hummingbirds. A third CD features Interviews and Storytelling (1968-1994) highlighting stories and interviews with Allen Ginsberg, B.B. King, Alex Haley, and Alice Walker. And to complete this archival wonder is a DVD featuring Documentary Films by William Ferris (1972-1980).

Jeffrey Wolf: I have a particular interest in origin stories. What’s yours? When, where and how did this process start for you?

William Ferris: I grew up on a farm in Mississippi. My family was the only white family on the farm. All the other families were black. When I was four, a lady named Mary Gordon took me to Rose Hill Church on the farm every first Sunday of the month. I learned the hymns and spirituals at the church and later realized that because there were no hymnals in the church, when the families were no longer there, the music would disappear. As a teenager, I began to record, photograph, and later filmed the services at Rose Hill Church as a way to preserve the music and the lives of its members. That work soon expanded to include blues musicians near the farm as well.

I was also very influenced by my grandparents, Eugene and Martha Ferris (Grandad and Grammie), who lived in a log cabin my father built for them a quarter of a mile in the woods behind our home. My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller who sometimes told me the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” When Grandad reached the end of the story, I would ask him, “Grandad, tell it again, please.” And he would tell it a second time. I grew up surrounded by storytellers and never wanted to forget their stories, which were so important in my life. That love of stories and music inspired my career as a folklorist.

Wolf: “A political act when black voices were being silenced.” As a filmmaker myself I like to think that is always in the back of my mind. What does it mean to you?

Ferris: During the sixties, I was drawn both to the Civil Rights Movement and to my work as a folklorist. I saw my recordings, photographs, and films as a political act in which I gave a voice to the voiceless. It was dangerous for a white person to work in the black community during that time, and I always felt threatened as I worked with musicians and artists. They often said, “If we tell you these stories, do you promise to put them out so the world can know what it was like down here?” To which I replied, “You have my word that I will share them with the world.” There is a powerful, enduring message delivered through the voices I recorded that becomes more pressing and poignant with each year.They are truly timeless.

Wolf: When we met in 1982, where were you in the process of this journey?  Was James “Son Ford” Thomas your main focus?

Ferris: When we first met in 1982, I had worked with many musicians and artists, but James “Son Ford” Thomas was my primary anchor. We worked closely together until his death in June 26, 1993. Mr. Thomas’s blues performances, folktales, and clay sculpture were a uniquely rich reservoir of art, and his thoughtful stories about his life were an inspiration to my work as a folklorist. We traveled to festivals and conferences together, and he spoke to my students when I taught at Jackson State University, Yale University, and the University of Mississippi.

Wolf: Mortality and Being Remembered. Legacy and Heredity. What did that mean to the people you recorded? What does that mean to you and your work?

Ferris: Faulkner once remarked that it is the goal of every artist to leave a mark on the face of oblivion. Life is fleeting, and the voices I recorded were captured in the brief moments we shared together. I increasingly appreciate the power of those recordings, photographs, and films. They grow stronger and more significant over time. I view my work as a time capsule that will be opened and understood by future generations. My role was to deliver those voices to listeners who will make them part of their lives.

Wolf: Democracy of listening. Fly on the wall style of documenting. There is a long tradition of this. Who are your mentors?

Ferris: I have many heroes, beginning with my parents who taught me to always respect, listen, and learn from others. As an undergraduate student at Davidson College, I stumbled across the Library of Congress recordings that John and Alan Lomax made, some of which were in Mississippi. Those recordings affirmed to me that the work I was doing had value and inspired me to continue making the recordings.

Later, as a graduate student doing an MA in English at Northwestern University in 1964-65, I listened faithfully to Studs Terkel each week on WFMT. With his warm, penetrating voice he interviewed Mahalia Jackson, civil rights workers in Mississippi, and many others, and he became a model for what I hoped to achieve with my recordings.

Wolf: Can you describe what power this boxed set as a collection gives the individual voices as a whole?

Ferris: The boxed set, Voices of Mississippi, (http://www.dust-digital.com/ferris/), contains the crown jewels of my life’s work as a folklorist. Together, the voices are like a chorus whose narratives and songs form a patchwork quilt of sound that is a key to the rich literary tradition of southern writers. They are the sound of oral tradition at its richest, from Parchman Penitentiary inmates to writers like Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, and Barry Hannah. The diverse voices and music, both the spoken and sung recordings, deliver a hybrid vigor to the entire fabric of the collection.

Wolf: After spending time in the South, I came up with the motto: It’s more complicated than it looks. As a Southerner can you explain that?

Ferris: The American South is arguably the most documented place on earth. Worlds like the Mississippi Delta have been photographed, filmed, and recorded by generations who come from throughout the world to discover the authentic voices and music of the region, those raw, disturbing, enduring sounds that are unique to the American South. It is a world in which irony, humor, and pathos exist side by side.

Wolf: The South has a great history of the narrative form and magical realism. In art we are taught that created works are meant to stand on their own. Why do you think the stories that accompany the music are so important?

Ferris: Stories and music are cut from the same cloth. There is this music in the language that people speak, whether talking on a front porch, preaching a sermon, or telling a tale. When we hear the full range of stories and music included in Voices of Mississippi, the voices deepen our sense of the place known as Mississippi. They both rise from and are grounded in the place where they live. Their stories frame the music in an essential, unique manner.

JEFFREY WOLF is a New York writer, director and film editor. His 2008 documentary film, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, portrays Castle’s life and creative process, as told by family members, artists and members of the deaf community. His newest documentary, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, will premier during the opening of Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on September 28, 2018.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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